With my stomach growling and the noon-hour ending, I realized lunch could wait no longer. It was time to find a shady spot to escape the sun and the detection of any elk that might pass within arrow range.
It was day four of my annual bowhunt in southeastern Idaho. Each of the previous days I’d been within 50 yards of bugling bulls, but I either spooked or couldn’t see them for all the brush on this mountain in the Targhee-Caribou National Forest.
Soon enough I spotted a large Douglas fir whose lowest branches made an emerald-green ceiling six feet off the ground. Perfect. I kicked away dirt to level the ground, dropped a thin cushion for pampering’s sake, and plunked down with an appreciative groan.
While munching on a bagel packed with tuna salad, I spotted a lone feather an arm’s length away. Its black and rosy-red colors reflected sunlight outside my fir’s shade. After grabbing and inspecting it, I decided the feather was probably left by a red-shafted flicker.
I knew just the place for it—after doffing my camouflage cap, I poked the feather’s quill through a vent-hole in the cap’s top.
“OK, Judy, I’ll try it,” I thought.
I was thinking about my friend Judy Kovar, an outdoor writer from southern Illinois. Kovar is half Cheyenne, and in her book, Bowhuntin’ Spirits, she described her excitement in finding two feathers in a ground blind while hunting black bears.
She said her grandfather, a full-blooded Cheyenne, believed if you wore part of an animal, it made you one with the animal. She wrote: “Wearing turkey feathers gave you the turkey’s keen eyesight. Bobcat claws made you swift and sleek. Raccoon fur made you sly and cunning, and bear claws gave you awesome strength. Every animal has a special meaning in our life.”
I’m wasn’t sure what special skills a flicker might loan me, but because this woodpecker can find ants, grubs, beetles, and other insects beneath tree bark and the ground itself, maybe some of its predatory traits would transfer to my hunt for elk.
Kovar would smile at my uncertainties. As she wrote: “Most folks know nothing about such matters, but most Native Americans are obsessed with feathers. In our cultures, feathers foretell or honor special places, ceremonies or achievements.”
If Judy thinks it so, why not embrace the possibilities?
Coincidence or not, a few minutes later four elk trotted into a small opening about 150 yards away. That’s too far for a bow, of course, so I made a few soft cow calls, hoping to get their attention.
The group disappeared minutes later. I hung up my bow, sat back down, and finished my lunch. Twenty minutes later a I heard a branch break 50 yards behind me. As I turned to look, I heard an elk spin away, its hoofs striking heavily into the ground.
Ten minutes passed and I heard hoofsteps again, this time slightly in front and to my left about 50 yards. A few seconds passed, and again I heard an elk whirl away.
What were those elk up to? Elk normally don’t go cruising at 1:15 in the afternoon. Maybe my flicker feather had some powers after all; although not enough to compensate for my shortcomings as a hunter.
The next day, however (Sunday, September 7), I arrowed a 4-by-4 bull elk as it walked past at 10:55 a.m. while I still-hunted the edge of an aspen grove Another midday cruiser. As I posed for a few photos, I hoped the little red/black flicker feather would be visible. If nothing else, it would be a good story to share with Kovar.
Then again, that wasn’t the first time I’ve tried inspiring good luck with a symbol. In fact, I keep two talismans and a serious tribute in the depths of my hunting pack. The charms are a pair of buckeyes an Ohio bowhunter gave me 20 years ago while we hunted deer in Alabama. He didn’t know the origins of buckeyes as good-luck charms, but he wanted me to have them.
The serious tribute inside my pack is an “urn” of plastic-bagged, paper-wrapped ashes from my late friend and number-one storyteller John Peterson. A few months after he died in April 2009, his widow, Kristen, gave me a packet of John’s ashes to spread where he and I hunted along the Snake River in Idaho and the Missouri River in Montana. Which I did. I just sealed a few leftovers inside my pack for future hunts with “The Captain.”
I’ve carried these keepsakes ever since. I intended to add the flicker’s feather to my talisman collection, but it fell from my cap as I backpacked the elk’s meat down the mountain that evening.
Maybe it went looking for another hunter to bless.
Images by Patrick Durkin